John Newton and "Amazing Grace"
When John Newton penned these words in 1779, he was writing from personal experience: His life had indeed been fraught with “dangers, toils and snares,” and he knew that it was only by the grace of God that he was still alive and well.
Born in 1725, John Newton had a short childhood. After his mother died when he was just seven, Newton was temporarily taken in by her friends, the Catletts, before attending boarding school for two years. At the tender age of eleven, he went to sea with his father, John Newton, Sr., a merchant seaman. Unlike his Puritan Dissenter mother, whose faith would ultimately influence Newton’s own spiritual journey as an adult, Newton’s father and stepmother neglected the boy’s religious upbringing. As a result, young Newton began to lose sight of what his mother had taught him.
When Newton was seventeen, his father had big plans for him. A Liverpudlian shipowner involved in the slave-trade and sugar production would take young John to Jamaica. There, he would work as a slave overseer, obtain his own plantation, and eventually use his massive profits to enter Parliament, as other plantation owners had done.
However, unbeknownst to his father, Newton had fallen in love with Mary Catlett, the daughter of the couple who had cared for him as a boy and the woman he would eventually marry. As far as he was concerned, leaving for Jamaica was out of the question. He quite literally missed the boat.
Upset at his son’s refusal to go along with his plans, Newton, Sr., sent him back to sea, this time as a common sailor without the privileges of being the captain’s son. Intended to reform Newton, this move had the opposite effect on the young man. He quickly turned to all the drunkenness, blasphemy, and general debauchery of his fellow sailors.
Following this trip, Newton was supposed to take a second voyage, this time as an officer. He visited Mary instead and missed the boat again. While visiting Mary again in 1744, he was pressed into the Royal Navy as a crewmember on the man-o’-war HMS Harwich.
Newton was miserable in the Navy, physically and spiritually. He made bad friends, was derisive of religion, and contemplated killing either the captain or himself. Eventually, he tried to desert but was arrested and returned to his ship the next day. Before the Harwich left for the East Indies, he managed to obtain a transfer to the Pegasus, which was headed for the Guinea Coast as part of the slave trade. The Pegasus was partly owned by Amos Clowe, a slave trader who led Newton to believe he would provide the young man with a good job once they reached Africa. Instead, Clowe gave Newton to his African mistress Peye, who treated Newton worse than her slaves.
After two years of conditions worse than indentured servitude, Newton was rescued by a captain sent by his father. Bound for home on the Greyhound, Newton seemed morally lost. Although he had himself experienced the brutality of slavery, he was resolved to reenter the slave trade, his sights set on the sizable profits a trader could accrue.
Despite this, Newton’s first moment of true conversion happened when the Greyhound was off the coast of Donegal, Ireland, and was caught in a terrible storm that left the ship in pieces and drowned the first mate. As he spent all night pumping water out of the ship’s hold and eventually taking the wheel himself, Newton considered his past sinfulness and rejection of the faith of his youth. Although he believed himself past the point of redemption, he recalled Scripture’s promise of God’s mercy and prayed that the ship would be saved. His prayer was answered, and his conversion began in earnest.
Newton continued to struggle with living by faith. The final, decisive moment came on a voyage the following year, during which he visited the place where Amos Clowe had held him captive. Upon coming down with a fever and recovering, he finally gave himself over to God and began to pray freely.
Although he had become a practicing Christian, Newton had not yet repented of his commitment to the slave trade. He still thought it a respectable profession, and he went on to captain two slave ships. During his last few years in the trade, however, Newton began to get an inkling of the fact that there was something inherently wrong with human trafficking. He and his sailors began praying for the slaves they transported. When he came close to dying again of a virulent fever, he prayed for two things in the event of his recovery: that he could understand his faith better in order to lead other people to a conversion like his own and that he could leave his life as a seaman and slave trader.
That second prayer was answered almost immediately: Newton soon obtained a new job on shore in Liverpool as a ship inspector. His first prayer took a little longer, but a lull in maritime activity due to the Seven Years’ War gave Newton the leisure to travel around England. During this time, he heard a variety of Evangelical preachers, including John Wesley, and began a self-guided course of studies in Biblical languages and divinity literature.
In 1757, Newton felt God’s call to be a minister. He spent the next seven years seeking ordination in the Church of England. Unfortunately, because of his interest in Evangelical preachers and his lack of a university education, he was labeled a “Methodist” and consequently rejected by several Anglican bishops. He was left to preach from his own home to a circle of friends until Lord Dartmouth gave Newton a position as the ordained curate of Olney, a small, mostly poor town in the midlands of England.
Newton immediately established a variety of ministries in Olney, paying special attention to the children of the town. He personally taught them and collaborated with other ministers in the area to run a yearly conference for the youth. Now that he was ordained, Newton regularly traveled to various Established and Dissenting parishes throughout England as a guest preacher and frequently hosted visiting preachers in Olney.
Newton frequently wrote hymns to be sung at Sunday services in mid-week meetings or by the children of his parish. Often these hymns spoke to a personal struggle he or a member of his congregation was currently enduring. In 1779, Newton compiled the hymns written by him and his good friend, the poet, William Cowper. Issued as the Olney Hymns, this collection is the first publication of “Amazing Grace,” six stanzas under the name “Hymn 41.”
Unfortunately, around this time, the people of Olney had ceased to follow Newton’s spiritual leadership. When John Thornton, a renowned philanthropist, offered Newton the rectorship of St. Mary Woolnoth in London, Newton accepted. He served there until his death in 1807.
During his time at Olney and St. Mary Woolnoth, Newton influenced abolitionists and leaders in the Evangelical movement such as William Wilberforce and Charles Simeon. The friend with whom he wrote the Olney hymns, William Cowper, was an important player in the creation of abolitionist material that turned people’s hearts towards the cause.
Initially, Newton had little interest in decrying the slave trade publicly, but his friendship with Wilberforce changed his mind. Newton’s encouragement was a crucial factor in Wilberforce’s decision to continue as an MP in order to advocate for abolition. In 1788, Newton spoke out openly for the first time against the slave trade with his essay “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade.” His argument was twofold: He claimed that the slave trade was abominable for both captive and captor. First, it inhumanely treated men and women who should be regarded as human beings, not chattel. Secondly, it brutalized the slave traders who became something less than human as they continued to perpetrate terrible offenses against their captives. Newton was the key witness for the case against the trade brought before Prime Minister William Pitt’s investigatory committee.
Happily, Newton lived just long enough to see the abolition of the slave trade with the passing of The Slave Trade Act in February of 1807 and its subsequent royal assent in March. He passed away on December 21, 1807, and was buried next to his beloved wife Mary in St. Mary Woolnoth. Ninety years later, their bodies were moved to Olney’s Church of St. Peter and Paul, where Newton had been curate. Newton’s epitaph, written by the man himself, echoes the themes of his most famous hymn: